Chronology of a new transit camp on the Tunisian border

Published: 6 April 2011 22:50 CET

Part 2: Going live

10:45 – The distribution of relief items starts
At the far end of the camp, four volunteers led by Arturo, a logistics specialist from the French Red Cross, get basic relief items ready for distribution. The items are NFIs, as we call them, or non-food items.

11:00 – A clean bill of health for the camp's youngest baby
Omar is just 20 days old. If the International Organization for Migration (IOM) can find the funds, he should be out of the transit camp and back in his home country before he turns one month old. His sister, four-year-old Khadija, cries as Boutheïna talks to their parents, Aïcha and Mohammed. “She's scared,” they explain. It turns out her lip is cut and hurting.

Aïcha will also sit down with Marwa Ben Saïd, 22, a fourth-year psychology student from Bizerte, who meets them in the psychosocial support tent. The camp's children will also be called back to be checked for vaccinations and overall health. The camp's emergency tents are now up and running 24/7, with an impeccably clean and well-organized pharmacy and space to receive up to four people at a time.

11:25 – Families under the tents
Khaltouma and Admadaoud are part of an extended family of 24 people. They have settled into six tents and next to each other so that they’re not separated. They lived in Libya for nearly two decades, raising children and building their lives. Khaltouma's husband had a steady job as a driver. “We left because of war,” she explains. Last night they managed to
make it to the border. “When will we be able to go home?” is her first question.

13:30 – A news agency visits the camp
The national press agency Tunis Afrique Presse (TAP) arrives at the transit camp. Journalist Boutar Raouda stops at several tents to listen to people’s stories. She also meets the

14:55 – A new era for the Tunisian Red Crescent
The transit camp waits for more arrivals. Moaz, the tent builder, has been a volunteer for almost half his life. He is here to help, but also because he hopes that the dramatic events of 2011 will lead to a new era for his National Society.

15:00 Another bus arrives
The next bus arrives with 19 young men. There are no hiccups.

15:30 – Water, please
Inside the kitchens, Selhouah, 50, and Imane, 25, women from the local community, have joined Livia, Mulass and Layna. Outside, Marco, a water and sanitation engineer, gets the water purification system ready.

15h40 The first house call (or tent call)
An anxious young man walks into the health tent. His cousin is sick and has trouble walking. So Dr Chem Chem Abdelnour visits their tent, and finds an older man, who is obviously exhausted. “His head hurts,” they say. The doctor invites him over to be examined. There are already two more people waiting for care back at the tent. Boutheïna welcomes them and keeps track of patient intake.

15:52 – “Camp is now live”
“Camp is now live. Tx to all for all the hard preparation." The text message arrives via SMS. It's from Roger Bracke, the IFRC’s head of operations. If everyone had not been so focused on their work, a loud cheer might have been heard rising above the hubbub of life in the transit camp.

18:30 – Last bus of the night
One more bus arrives before nightfall, bringing 27 new arrivals to the transit camp.

19:30 – Dinner is served
The kitchens serve their first meal, as the camp starts to wind down for the night. There are now 123 people at the camp with 13 families and a total of 28 children under the age of 13, and 4 elderly people over the age of 60. Almost everyone is from Chad (106), with 16 people from Mali and 1 Ghanean.

Part 1: Like clockwork

06:00 – Base camp wakes up
Base camp wakes up. A cool breeze has risen along with the bright sun, whipping up sand and dust. The first crews of volunteers move out to the transit camp at Ras Jedir. Some of the volunteers, like 32-year-old Moaz, have spent the last four weeks installing tents that are now ready to provide shelter.

“We learnt on the job,” he explains. Together with a group from the Finnish Red Cross, he carried out his work by referring to guidance manuals. But all the hard work has paid off and today, Moaz is proud that the tents are ready and safe. In total, 20 National Societies – from Algeria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Iraq, Iran, Italy, Jordan, Lebanon, Luxemburg, Morocco, the Netherlands, Norway, Palestine, Qatar, Syria, the UK and US, and, last but certainly not least, Tunisia – have contributed to building the transit camp.

Six and a half kilometres away, people have gathered at the Tunisian border crossing. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) will be shuttling them to the transit camps at Shousha and, for the first time, here. How many will arrive? Will there be many families? And, most importantly, how long they will have to wait before they can go home? Money is drying up both for the transit camp and for the repatriation efforts. Just as the camp is opening its doors, funding is desperately needed to meet the needs of those arriving.

08:00 – The volunteers are ready to go
Small groups of Tunisian Red Crescent volunteers leave base camp for the transit camp. Boutheïna is a 25-year-old prosthetist, the eldest of three sisters who all volunteer for the Tunisian Red Crescent. In fact, Boutheïna declares that her family, her job and the Red Crescent are the three most important things in her life. She is looking forward to working with the medical team today to welcome families and anyone needing health care. Her only regret? That she won't be able to stay longer.

08:20 The Red Cross Red Crescent kitchen crew gets cooking
The Italian Red Cross kitchen crew arrive. Livia is a 23-year-old Italian psychology student who joined the Red Cross after the earthquake in Italy last year. She joins Mulass and Layna, both nurses, to start preparing the first meal to be served tonight at 19:30. They will work alongside fellow volunteers from the Algerian Red Crescent and with women from the local community.

09:10 – The registration crew is ready and waiting
The convoy of new arrivals is now leaving the border. At the registration centre, the volunteers wearing fluorescent yellow and orange jackets get ready. They have undergone intense training to be ready for today.
Atef mans one of the desks that will welcome newcomers. He is a 26-year-old first aider from Ben Ghardane, the town closest to the border on the Tunisian side that lives from trade with Libya. Until 22 February, he had been working across the border, but his company immediately brought him home. Six weeks later, he decided to come to the transit camp. “I've been there,” he says. He wants to help.

09:28 – The first bus arrives
The first bus arrives safely. The IOM delegates introduce themselves to the Red Crescent volunteers. People trickle out of the bus. They retrieve their luggage from a separate pick-up truck. There are huge suitcases, bags and boxes in all sizes, shapes and colours. Marhababikou”m” (welcome) is heard over and over, and quickly the new arrivals understand that they may soon be able to, at last, get some rest.

The first children clamber off the bus. They are on their guard, like their parents, but there are no tears. Mohamed and Imane queue with their daughter Zina, age 3, and Tahar, a strong-built 17-year-old boy. Then come Hassen and Hossein, six-year-old twins dressed in matching red outfits.

“They are real twins,” their father, Ousmane, explains proudly. A young man just turned 30, he has come with his wife, the twins, and Radhia, their two-year-old daughter. There is no more time to talk, as everyone lines up for registration.

09:33 – Registration starts
Working in two separate tents, over a dozen volunteers sit down with each family one at a time. Questions are asked and answered, mostly in Arabic, but also in French and English. Tickets are handed out to each person or head of household.

A family from Mali explains that they lived in Libya for ten years. Their eight children – ranging from the eldest Awa, age 10, to Fatma, who is just 2 months old – were all born in Libya. But now this family wants and needs to go home. They want to know when they'll be able to leave. And that is a question that keeps being asked.

10:15 Registration ends
All 80 people are now registered, and many have already made it to their tents. The children settle in, playing in the family quarters. Today marks a new chapter, not only for the new arrivals, but also for this new camp and all those who have worked hard to make it happen.